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Fade of the Polaroid: Towards a Political Ontology of the 70s

Andrew Pen­dakis

…that mem­o­ries are the only pos­ses­sions which no-one can take from us, belongs in the store­house of impo­tent­ly sen­ti­men­tal con­so­la­tions that the sub­ject, resigned­ly with­draw­ing into inward­ness, would like to believe as the very ful­fil­ment that he has giv­en up. In set­ting up his own archives, the sub­ject seizes his own stock of expe­ri­ence as prop­er­ty, so mak­ing it some­thing whol­ly exter­nal to him­self. Past inner life is turned into fur­ni­ture just as, con­verse­ly, every Bie­der­meier piece was mem­o­ry made wood. The inte­ri­or where the soul accom­mo­dates its col­lec­tion of mem­oirs and curios is derelict. Mem­o­ries can­not be con­served in draw­ers and pigeon-holes; in them the past is indis­sol­ubly woven into the present. No-one has them at his dis­pos­al in the free and vol­un­tary way that is praised in Jean Paul’s ful­some sen­tences. Pre­cise­ly where they become con­trol­lable and objec­ti­fied, where the sub­ject believes him­self entire­ly sure of them, mem­o­ries fade like del­i­cate wall­pa­pers in bright sun­light. But where, pro­tect­ed by obliv­ion, they keep their strength, they are endan­gered like all that is alive.

—Theodor Adorno (2005: 166)

The clocks are nev­er syn­chro­nized, the sched­ules nev­er coor­di­nat­ed, every epoch is a dis­cor­dant mix of diver­gent rhythms, unequal dura­tions, and vari­able speeds.

—Rebec­ca Comay (2011: 4)

Though we are tempt­ed to imag­ine time as intrin­si­cal­ly open, free to com­bine and re-com­bine with moments past or still to come, eras instead become com­pul­sive­ly entan­gled with each oth­er, linked in such a way that nei­ther can be under­stood apart. We know, after Wal­ter Ben­jamin, that his­to­ry looks less like a fin­ished build­ing than it does the lat­ter ruined—shards of base­ment in the attic, holes slashed through floors at strange angles, stair­cas­es that end sud­den­ly, mid-air. When times inter­pen­e­trate like this they find them­selves sud­den­ly linked by a his­tor­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary ener­gy of fil­i­a­tion or dis­avow­al. In a struc­ture loose­ly anal­o­gous to that of the uncon­scious of an indi­vid­ual sub­ject, a time enters into an orbit with anoth­er peri­od or era. Times fall in love, though the para­me­ters here are not defined by trans­paren­cy or full­ness, but depen­den­cy, fear, aggres­sion, and misrecognition.

It may be that our own time has entered into pre­cise­ly such a rela­tion­ship with the 1970s. Unlike the 1990s, which may still be too close to us, the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are decades amenable to rep­re­sen­ta­tion as dis­crete units or peri­ods; they strike us as wholes bound by a cer­tain inter­nal aes­thet­ic log­ic or flow. It may be, of course, that this is lit­tle more than an opti­cal illu­sion pro­duced by rep­re­sen­ta­tion itself: we intu­it the 1960s as such only because we’ve been trained by pop­u­lar cul­ture to rec­og­nize its tell-tale cues and signs. The unrep­re­sentabil­i­ty of the 1990s then may in fact turn out to have been noth­ing more than the inter­val required by a cul­ture to trans­form its past into a con­cept; alter­na­tive­ly, it may be that there is actu­al­ly some­thing in the object, in the his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty of the 1990s itself, that pre­vents its trans­la­tion into a coher­ent image or idea. Today one watch­es the TV show Friends ful­ly aware of the way its tone, style, and forms of speech are prop­er to the peri­od, but the var­i­ous bits and pieces that com­prise the decade’s con­tent seem more like an aggre­gate of exter­nal­ly relat­ed parts—one damn thing after another—than they do the organelles of a func­tion­ing tem­po­ral whole. Where cer­tain “decades” come to appear wrapped around cen­tral orga­niz­ing events/problems or are sat­u­rat­ed from with­in by dom­i­nant styles (any­thing from fash­ion to sounds), oth­ers seem to wade through a zone of indif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, a tone­less­ness that leaves its key objects and moments linked by noth­ing more than sheer con­ti­gu­i­ty. It may be in fact that the 1970s were among the last eras phraseable in the idiom of the “era” itself—that they were, in some com­plex way, the last real “decade.”

But why might this be? Is it that when com­pared with the 1990s (and lat­er the 2000s) the 70s altered cul­tur­al­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly at a com­par­a­tive­ly slow­er pace, that this rate of change was still slow enough to con­geal into the rec­og­niz­abli­ty of a style or idea? Is it less a ques­tion of pace and more one of qual­i­ty, of the kind of change that took place in this peri­od, with the inter­net and mobile phones rep­re­sent­ing a more sub­stan­tive redis­tri­b­u­tion of space and time than the CD? Is it that the 1970s were not yet tech­no­log­i­cal­ly frag­ment­ed in the way that the 1990s and lat­er our own time would be, with the cul­tur­al tone of our age now effec­tive­ly dis­persed across a thou­sand plat­forms, media, and “con­tent providers”? Is it the belat­ed effect of glob­al­iza­tion on our capac­i­ty to gen­er­al­ize an era? Or is it that the 1990s when held up against the 1970s were expe­ri­enced even by those liv­ing through them as a kind of ter­mi­nus or end­point, a time appar­ent­ly with­out events (at least in the West), which, depend­ing on one’s per­spec­tive, marked the tri­umph of lib­er­al­ism and a new era of per­pet­u­al peace, or alter­na­tive­ly (and less naïve­ly), the tri­umph of unfet­tered cap­i­tal­ism and a new era of hyper-con­sumerist banal­i­ty. It may be too that this fail­ure of the 1990s to achieve its own iconic­i­ty is the expres­sion with­in his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the prob­lem that Guy Debord once posed as the moment in which all that was once lived moves into the domain of the image. The capac­i­ty of an era to reg­is­ter events as actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing would in this sense be the min­i­mal onto­log­i­cal con­di­tion for the exis­tence of Hegelian Geist, of an era’s inner spir­i­tu­al coher­ence and neces­si­ty. It is in this sense that we might be said to be liv­ing in some­thing like a long 1990s, a decade with­out dis­cernible tex­ture that per­sists, despite its con­tra­dic­tions, despite the obvi­ous dif­fer­ences between then and now, for as long as no viable polit­i­cal alter­na­tives to neolib­er­al­ism can be imag­ined. It could be too, final­ly, that this very con­ceit, that of a trans­for­ma­tion in the capac­i­ty of his­to­ry to gen­er­ate “eras” prop­er, tells us less about the log­ic of the 1970s, the last “real” decade, than it does the struc­ture of our own time’s desire (a time, per­haps, so des­per­ate to mark its own speci­fici­ty that it is open to imag­in­ing itself as unprece­dent­ed­ly devoid of sense, feel­ing, his­toric­i­ty, etc.). In the post­mod­ern dri­ve to frame the present as an end—to his­to­ry or expe­ri­ence, for example—the present itself is flood­ed with a vibrat­ing ecsta­sy of the new, a sense that noth­ing like this has ever hap­pened before and that we, here, at the end of his­to­ry can now know all of the things those who came before us didn’t.

The most obvi­ous symp­tom of our moment’s entan­gle­ment with the 1970s is the inten­si­ty with which we con­tin­ue to attach our­selves to its arti­facts. This is expressed first in the ease with which film and music from the decade con­tin­ue to be con­sumed under the sign of the “clas­sic,” a con­cept that clear­ly imbues pro­duc­tions from the era with greater authen­tic­i­ty or orig­i­nal­i­ty than their coun­ter­parts in the present. We should not assume that this is some­thing like the nat­ur­al aura of his­to­ry, one that organ­i­cal­ly begins to fringe all things past or old at inter­vals that can be pre­dict­ed in advance. Instead, it would appear that the dimen­sions that accrue around the con­cept of clas­sic rock and film in the present are sol­dered to many of the prop­er­ties of the 1970s itself. What is it about the decade as a whole that allows for this inten­si­fied invest­ment, as if it were the time itself, its own grit­ti­ness, its own con­tra­dic­to­ry real­ness, that vibrates through the sig­na­ture cul­tur­al objects and ges­tures we teth­er to the peri­od? Isn’t there a way, after all, in which every­thing we know about the 1970s hap­pens in the light of a strange­ly uni­ver­sal­ized New York, a New York of the movies, one rot­ten with crime and sex but also gor­geous­ly soaked in neon? The dorm rooms of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, espe­cial­ly those of men, con­tin­ue to bizarrely orbit the era: Led Zep­pelin, Pink Floyd, and Bob Mar­ley posters in music, The God­fa­ther, Mean Streets, Clock­work Orange in film. Even a cur­so­ry glance into these spaces reveals a strange­ly par­a­lyzed cam­pus imag­i­nary; the expect­ed tran­si­tion to a ver­sion of the clas­sic ground­ed in new con­tent, in the “best of the nineties,” takes place, but only par­tial­ly. If the process by which things become trans­lat­ed into the idiom of the clas­sic is lin­ear, a huge machine that slides through time along pre­dictable inter-gen­er­a­tional cycles—say, every 25 years—then the mech­a­nism almost cer­tain­ly jammed in the 1970s and has since stut­tered around the decade with a strange insis­ten­cy. Per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing then that among the most oft-encoun­tered (con­tem­po­rary) posters found in these spaces is that of Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fic­tion, a 1990s text com­plete­ly sat­u­rat­ed by the motifs and forms of the 1970s (and fea­tur­ing one of the decade’s most rec­og­niz­able stars): it is as if we could only cob­ble togeth­er our con­cep­tion of the clas­sic through the detri­tus of the 1970s, as if the decade had become nec­es­sary to any attempt on the part of a text to con­vinc­ing­ly can­on­ize itself. Trou­ble­some is the way this ontol­o­giza­tion of the decade’s key fig­ures and motifs dove­tails with the log­ics of con­tem­po­rary misog­y­ny, fears about the declin­ing man­li­ness of men, and the con­fus­ing vague­ness of gen­der roles fed into a nos­tal­gia for a time when “men were still men.” The brute male­ness of the mobster—or any one of the decade’s myr­i­ad agents of charm­ing vio­lence, rang­ing from ser­i­al killers to rogue cops—comes to be intu­it­ed as some­how clos­er to the sav­age Real of things them­selves. The humil­i­a­tions of the present—say the banal­i­ties of office work—can then be re-cal­i­brat­ed as female, as mark­ers of a mass emas­cu­la­tion of men that has led them into a world of fak­e­ness and pas­siv­i­ty. This is pre­cise­ly the posi­tion tak­en by Fight Club; it comes as no sur­prise then that Tyler Dur­den is decked out in the garb of the 1970s (wide-col­lared dis­co shirt, avi­a­tor glass­es, vin­tage leather jack­et, etc.)—he’s func­tion­ing in 1999 as an id dressed up as nat­ur­al mas­culin­i­ty. To what extent this “nat­ur­al masculinity”—grounded in a fan­ta­sy of the 1970s as a time of uncon­strained male ges­ture and desire—continues to haunt the mous­tach­es of urban hip­sters is an open ques­tion, one not eas­i­ly solved by an invo­ca­tion of irony.

We con­sume the period’s visu­al cul­ture, then, also through its reit­er­a­tions in con­tem­po­rary con­tent set in the peri­od. 1990s cin­e­ma looped back to the decade con­stant­ly—Good­fel­las (1990), Casi­no (1995), Boo­gie Nights (1997), Sum­mer of Sam (1999), 54 (1998)—orbiting objects and motifs (dis­co, mob­sters, the birth of the ser­i­al killer) that con­tin­ue to haunt con­tem­po­rary films (Zodi­ac, Amer­i­can Hus­tle, The Good Guys). Again, the kind of tone ground­ing these films reveals an era that is intense, expres­sive, high, fast, and violent—manically Real in a way that has been lost to a seem­ing­ly less volatile, more “medi­at­ed” present (with this medi­a­tion often fan­ta­sized from the both the Right and the Cen­tre as the encroach­ments of “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness”). Recent tele­vi­sion—Nar­cos, Mind­hunter, etc.—mirror many of these inter­ests and con­tin­ue the trend of imag­in­ing the life-world of the decade as most­ly vio­lent and male. So total is the pen­e­tra­tion of the fic­tion­al uni­verse of Star Wars into the mol­e­cules of con­tem­po­rary rep­re­sen­ta­tion that it is easy to for­get that it is in many ways, at least for those over the age of 40, a liv­ing arti­fact from the 1970s, one insep­a­ra­ble from an encounter with the period’s core log­ics and con­tra­dic­tions. We could not have imag­ined in 1977 that Star Wars was the Tro­jan horse for a new way of being in the world. That films could become worlds—self-sustaining spaces in which a whole gen­er­a­tion might imag­i­na­tive­ly live out much of its time, spaces com­plete with alter­na­tive his­to­ries, entire cosmologies—would have been sur­pris­ing to those alive amidst the press­ing his­toric­i­ty of the 1970s (and for whom film often crit­i­cal­ly reflect­ed on the most rel­e­vant his­tor­i­cal mat­ters of their day, from the war in Viet­nam to Water­gate). It is per­haps a mark of how bad­ly things have gone polit­i­cal­ly in the wake of Reagan—America’s first (but not last) Hol­ly­wood President—that our cul­ture con­tin­ues to under­stand these expan­sion­ary fic­tion­al uni­vers­es as no more than good clean fun, a fun, albeit, that has expanded—through bed­sheets and tooth­brush­es, video games, and food packaging—in direct­ly inverse pro­por­tion to the capac­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als to under­stand in even the most min­i­mal of ways their own place in his­to­ry. Wouldn’t this be the ulti­mate expres­sion of post­mod­ern think­ing tak­en to its extreme lim­it? A world in which every sub­ject, hav­ing cho­sen the con­tent it likes best (Star Wars, Har­ry Pot­ter, X-Men, etc.), embraces the sov­er­eign right not just to escape pol­i­tics, but the plan­et itself, dis­tant fic­tion­al galax­ies ren­dered in greater detail (and lush­er colour) than the basic polit­i­cal out­lines of their own neigh­bour­hoods? The sight of a mid­dle-aged man at home with his col­lec­tion of Star Wars figurines—or point­ing proud­ly at the office to a life-size Boba Fett doll he’d had installed to improve morale—reminds us that, despite all of the delu­sions of mod­ern adult­hood, it at least always held in reserve the ghost of a mate­ri­al­ist ontol­ogy. For all of its con­ser­vatism, for all of the ways every claim to adult­hood is a lie, there remains in the latter’s con­tempt for children’s fic­tions, and myth itself, a bare his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist gesture—an insis­tence on the seri­ous One­ness of sit­u­a­tions and on the exis­tence of a ground we some­how com­plex­ly and share. After 1977 it became pos­si­ble to be in pos­ses­sion of detailed tech­ni­cal knowl­edge of the blue­prints of the Death Star (and to dis­play this knowl­edge as edgy intel­li­gence), while at the same time open­ly (and unashamed­ly) know­ing noth­ing about the exis­tence of Tou­s­saint Louverture.

Back to the 1970s”

If pop­u­lar cul­ture returns to an idea of the 1970s that is at the very least var­ie­gat­ed, main­stream polit­i­cal dis­course per­pet­u­ates a much less flex­i­ble image of the decade as a peri­od of undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed ruin. One could argue that neolib­er­al­ism in many ways sur­vives, mask­ing its own pro­found fail­ure, on the basis of a high­ly cod­i­fied set of associations—what we might call “stock footage”—that frame the 1970s and social democ­ra­cy itself as an objec­tion­able form of pol­i­tics, ludi­crous to re-con­sid­er as viable. The codes at work here appear most clear­ly in the near-hys­te­ria that has greet­ed the rise of Jere­my Cor­byn in Britain. In 2015, Cen­trist Labour MP David Blun­kett claimed that those vot­ing for Cor­byn were most­ly hard-Left mil­i­tants fueled by an irra­tional pol­i­tics of hate (of the rich, the suc­cess­ful, etc.); if left unchecked they would drag Britain back to the 1970s, a time in which the nation was torn apart by “strikes, food short­ages, and black­outs.” To tilt in the direc­tion of social democracy—higher tax­es, for exam­ple, or tight­ened reg­u­la­to­ry regimes—would be to unthink­ing­ly fol­low “a road to nowhere.” A night­mar­ish mon­tage accom­pa­nies even the mer­est hint of a return to these poli­cies: corpses left unburied by union­ized gravedig­gers; the three-day work week (imposed to con­serve coal sup­plies hob­bled by strik­ing min­ers); streets crowd­ed with uncol­lect­ed garbage (and flush with rats); a series of States of Emer­gency (five in total) declared by Edward Heath between 1970-74 (plac­ing social democ­ra­cy on the same dan­ger­ous plane as ter­ror­ism or war). Instead of being a con­junc­ture of pos­si­bil­i­ty plied by myr­i­ad spec­u­la­tive futures, the 1970s in this view is reduced to the scin­til­lat­ing obvi­ous­ness of cri­sis. Thatcherite aus­ter­i­ty then comes to appear as nec­es­sary med­i­cine, a strict but fun­da­men­tal­ly sound treat­ment designed for a patient that would have died with­out it. In this sense, neolib­er­al­ism is nev­er opposed to a gen­uine polit­i­cal alter­na­tive or dif­fer­ent form of polit­i­cal rea­son, but only ever to net­works of dan­ger­ous dri­ves, instincts, and emotions—to an irra­tional expan­sion of the polit­i­cal into the sov­er­eign neces­si­ty of the mar­ket. In oth­er words, neolib­er­al­ism lacks inter­locu­tors because those who con­test it are always no more than force-fields of instincts. Any desire to “return to the 1970s”—that is to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly reassess its polit­i­cal legacy—can only be under­stood as: a) a naïve form of eco­nom­ic illit­er­a­cy (there is, after all, no such thing as an eco­nom­i­cal­ly sound social democ­ra­cy) or b) a bad Marx­ist death drive—a desire for the plea­sures of stu­pid nega­tion, of a class war that destroys for the sake of destruc­tion itself. Such a desire, either way, is noth­ing less than unnat­ur­al— a corpse left out in the sun.

One way to track the tropes at work in neoliberalism’s occlud­ed his­to­ry of the world is to focus on one of its great, spec­tral bogeys: infla­tion. Hatred of infla­tion is per­haps the clos­est thing our moment has to a (bi-par­ti­san) moral absolute. Left unchecked, allowed to “spi­ral,” infla­tion is almost uni­ver­sal­ly decried as wrong or risky; eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy (so we’re told by the cen­tral bankers and insti­tu­tion­al lenders) should be tai­lored to pri­or­i­tize and con­trol this dan­ger, even if it is at the cost of a rise in unem­ploy­ment or involves sig­nif­i­cant cuts to basic ser­vices. That such a choice in the 1950s—the era of One Nation con­ser­v­a­tives such as Harold Macmillan—would have been unthink­able, not just polit­i­cal­ly, but on emphat­i­cal­ly moral grounds is entire­ly for­got­ten. Stranger, though, is the way our moment finds in infla­tion an idea of cat­a­stro­phe that is more read­i­ly imag­in­able and a greater spur to action than the risk posed to life by cli­mate cri­sis. This is not an emp­ty asser­tion: gov­ern­ments reg­u­lar­ly act polit­i­cal­ly to curb infla­tion even as they do noth­ing in the face of poten­tial extinc­tion. It is as if the hyper-infla­tion­ary envi­ron­ment, one in which the sim­ple act of exchange spec­tac­u­lar­ly col­laps­es, presents a more com­pli­cat­ed puzzle—and a more ter­ri­ble prospect—than the col­lapse of the glob­al eco-sys­tem: one can fan­ta­size, for exam­ple, dra­mat­ic sci­en­tif­ic fix­es for cli­mate change or imag­ine a world in which humans eek out an exis­tence on the edges of a changed nat­ur­al world, but our cre­ativ­i­ty fades when tasked with the spec­tre of a $10,000 load of bread. One can­not sur­vive or endure infla­tion; one can only imme­di­ate­ly move to extin­guish it. In a cap­i­tal­ist envi­ron­ment in which every­one is spon­ta­neous­ly rel­a­tivist, noth­ing is more struc­tural­ly sur­re­al or real­ly more fun­da­men­tal­ly evil than a shift in the sta­bil­i­ty of prices—it is as if the con­sis­ten­cy of mon­ey were the last of the clas­si­cal cer­ti­tudes, one that per­sists despite the fact that it was pre­cise­ly the mar­ke­ti­za­tion of life—the sov­er­eign­ty of money—that killed the old truths in the first place. It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing then that his­to­ri­ans reg­u­lar­ly locate the Holo­caust, a pol­i­tics of death tak­en to a point beyond all lim­its, as emerg­ing out of the ter­ri­ble fog of the 1923 Weimar infla­tion. The mes­sage is clear: keep one’s mon­e­tary house in order or risk a return of the repressed of world-his­tor­i­cal proportions.

Hatred of infla­tion pass­es for truth, even in an age char­ac­ter­ized by the sus­pi­cion of absolutes, because it links the exper­i­men­tal skep­ti­cism of the nat­ur­al sci­ences with a much old­er cus­tom­ary log­ic ground­ed in the asso­ci­a­tion of chaos with excess. In con­tradis­tinc­tion to the mor­al­iz­ing Chris­t­ian or Con­fu­cian, the neolib­er­al econ­o­mist can point to the polit­i­cal neces­si­ty of anti-infla­tion­ary mea­sures, not as an injunc­tion to asce­sis or moral bal­ance but as an effect of unques­tion­able nat­ur­al sci­en­tif­ic law (com­plete with pre­cise num­bers and graphs). If we can’t imag­ine mea­sur­ing mass unhap­pi­ness we can at least know pre­cise­ly what’s going on in the sta­bil­i­ty of our mon­ey: we can accord to chaos a pre­cise mea­sure and respond to it with mon­e­tary gov­er­nance. Yet this injunc­tion (to bal­ance) works pre­cise­ly because it lies so close­ly to the inher­it­ed cus­tom­ary norms that struc­ture the West—dreams of order as har­mo­ny, bal­ance final­ly restored, and of excess or chaos as an unnat­ur­al devi­a­tion from things as they should be. Our moment illus­trates or dra­ma­tizes this chaos using stock pho­tos of the 1970s. On the oth­er side of infla­tion is a future drawn direct­ly from the past: scenes of riot, pro­duce rot­ting out of the backs of trucks, garbage-strewn streets, etc. The tone here is bib­li­cal; this is a time of plague and rot. Noth­ing bet­ter sig­nals social fail­ure in the eyes of the mid­dle class than the pub­lic dis­play of uncol­lect­ed trash: it con­tains the spec­tre of a “Third World” [this is not a claim about the “Third World” but about the way the lat­ter is imag­ined in the minds of the white mid­dle class], devo­lu­tion, the threat of a com­plete col­lapse of lib­er­al civil­i­ty. Infla­tion, for neolib­er­als, is a moral fable in which the main vil­lains are prof­li­gate (self-serv­ing) wel­fare states and greedy, wage-dis­tort­ing unions: at the root of infla­tion­ary chaos, one that ends the nat­ur­al sim­plic­i­ty of buy­ing and sell­ing, are states and unions who have made it all so trou­bling­ly political.

Thus, we must reject the idea that infla­tion is axiomat­i­cal­ly bad or that it is sim­ply the symp­tom of self-evi­dent eco­nom­ic fail­ure. This is because infla­tion reveals the truth that every claim of an econ­o­my to tran­scen­den­tal nat­u­ral­ness is false. The fog of infla­tion makes clear the fal­si­ty of growth, its claim to be an axiom, and its seem­ing auto­mat­ic qual­i­ty. In an infla­tion­ary spi­ral there is no longer any sense that an econ­o­my is some­thing com­prised of indi­vid­u­als nor that it is sim­ply a nat­ur­al whole that oper­ates behind the back of its agents; instead, the world splits into vir­u­lent stakes and inter­ests, class­es and forces, a fog or smoke in which every­thing is sud­den­ly debat­able. Coal doesn’t sim­ply move along smooth tracks from pit to fac­to­ry, but is slowed down by the Real of tru­cu­lent labour, the incon­ve­nient fact that noth­ing hap­pens with­out the latter’s con­sent. Mon­ey doesn’t flow from hand to hand, between a sell­er and a nat­ur­al buy­er, but takes the form, final­ly, of a prob­lem. Mon­ey in these con­texts becomes the local his­tor­i­cal inven­tion it has nev­er ceased to be. Cer­tain­ly, any pos­si­ble Left pol­i­tics has to “keep the lights on,” “keep the trains run­ning,” etc., but what­ev­er Left effi­cien­cy stands to be imag­ined by future prax­is will also be dis­tinct from its present coun­ter­part by being ori­ent­ed from the begin­ning towards the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a life nev­er whol­ly sutured to effi­cien­cy in the first place. A life, in oth­er words, in which effi­cien­cy nev­er becomes a gov­ern­ing ide­ol­o­gy (nor a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for suf­fer­ing or exploitation).

It bears keep­ing in mind that the last moment one could real­is­ti­cal­ly imag­ine the planet’s future as communist—or post-cap­i­tal­ist, social­ist, etc.—passed qui­et­ly and with­out any­one real­ly notic­ing on a day with­out a date some­time in the 1970s. All over the world—in Chi­na, parts of Africa, South Amer­i­ca, and even at the system’s very cen­tre (in the Unit­ed States, Ger­many, etc.)—it was pos­si­ble in the 1970s, buoyed by a sense for the con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance of social democ­ra­cy, for the polit­i­cal pow­er of stu­dents and unions and for the rev­o­lu­tions that con­tin­ued to emerge in places like Nicaragua or Afghanistan to con­clude that the plan­et was still tilt­ing slow­ly to the Left. There were signs of cri­sis, cer­tain­ly, and symp­toms of accu­mu­lat­ing con­tra­dic­tions and lim­its, but almost nobody envi­sioned the answer to these prob­lems in the form of a jar­ring lurch to the Right; apart from a tiny minor­i­ty, most­ly Fried­man­ite econ­o­mists or pol­i­cy wonks such as Kei­th Joseph, the thought of using unem­ploy­ment to tame infla­tion, or of active­ly dis­em­pow­er­ing the unions, was unimag­in­able. Adorno, of course, is cor­rect to point to the ways Auschwitz inter­rupt­ed the Enlight­en­ment dream of per­pet­u­al progress; yet it was pre­cise­ly the defeat of those who had engi­neered Auschwitz, com­bined with the post-war spread of social democ­ra­cy, that made it easy to see the slow trick­ling into com­mon sense of once-rad­i­cal Left ideas—unionism, full employ­ment, etc.—as an exten­sion of Rea­son into the last remain­ing bas­tions of igno­rance and priv­i­lege. For many in 1975 the idea that post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion should be free (or near-free) was as accept­ed as the sug­ges­tion in 2018 that a cig­a­rette should nev­er be smoked in the hall­way of a hos­pi­tal. Pub­li­cal­ly fund­ed libraries were then as axiomat­i­cal­ly irre­versible as the rights of women to dri­ve or vote. Even those on the Right—such as Edward Heath or Richard Nixon—broadly con­ced­ed as nec­es­sary many of the things that today, under neolib­er­al­ism, we view as excess­es or impos­si­bil­i­ties (work­ers’ rights, for exam­ple, or pensions).

To live in the 1970s was to inhab­it a hori­zon on which the future was, if not Red, at least red­dish or pink. This strange, now almost struc­tural­ly unre­mem­ber­able fact, is at the heart of the 1974 trav­el diary of Roland Barthes’ time in Chi­na. When he notes with amaze­ment the “absolute uni­for­mi­ty” of the out­fits worn by cit­i­zens in the People’s Repub­lic, he is to some extent chan­nel­ing a fair­ly pre­dictable lib­er­al response to com­mu­nist alter­i­ty: same­ness encoun­tered in this most pri­vate of domains—that of fash­ion and the bod­i­ly artic­u­la­tion of the personality—can only be reg­is­tered as repres­sion, as the banal symp­tom of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, rather than as a dif­fer­ence that capac­i­tates as much as it lim­its. Beneath the many snarky lib­er­al asides that pep­per his diary, how­ev­er, there is at the same time some­thing more—a sense for the sheer exte­ri­or­i­ty of com­mu­nism. It is along the thread of this anatomist’s gaze, one that rest­less­ly but amoral­ly doc­u­ments dif­fer­ences, that the text comes to reg­is­ter com­mu­nism as a gigan­tic, world-his­tor­i­cal object. Com­mu­nism, on this account, is not mere­ly the his­to­ry of a rad­i­cal dream, nor a sub­jec­tive process sus­tained by the activ­i­ty of mil­i­tants, but some­thing that has already hap­pened to the world (in the form of MiGs and free health care, but also short­er work­ing days and, yes, even gulags). Barthes texts reg­is­ters, in oth­er words, the scalar total­i­ty of communism—its huge­ness but also its improb­a­bil­i­ty, all of the risk and tor­por it had to tra­verse to exist at all. Barthes, who taught us to read our bod­ies like books and that out­fits too were sys­tems of signs, finds in the com­mand econ­o­my a kind of absolute alter­i­ty or lim­it: “the read­ing of the social dimen­sion is turned upside down. Uni­form isn’t uni­for­mi­ty” (57). To move from with­in the nat­u­ral­ness of a world in which we dress our­selves com­fort­ably in any man­ner we like to a world in which the het­ero­gene­ity of fash­ion, its empiri­cism, has been arrest­ed by cen­tral­ized pro­duc­tion is to move anthro­po­log­i­cal­ly between two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent life-worlds or ways of being alive. Mil­lions of peo­ple sud­den­ly wear the same piece of cloth­ing, a piece of cloth­ing that is final­ly noth­ing more or less than fab­ric itself, fab­ric worn on a sec­u­lar­ized body for which there no longer any Gods (save, maybe, for Mao). Cer­tain­ly, these gar­ments are alien­at­ed, still blurred at the edges by Maoist myth, but at the same instant, they are noth­ing more than cloth, and so become objects on the edge of every per­son­al imag­i­nary, objects of util­i­ty and use val­ue, freed on some lev­el from the imag­i­nary itself. To con­tend with the 1970s then is to con­tend in part with the remark­able rich­ness and resid­ual onto­log­i­cal sig­na­tures of actu­al­ly exist­ing communism.

A film such as Tin­ker, Tai­lor, Sol­dier, Spy, for exam­ple, presents com­mu­nism not as a spec­tral ide­al, nor as a well-inten­tioned feel­ing, nor even as a form of malev­o­lent extrem­i­ty or fail­ure, but as a bor­ing­ly exis­tent force, some­thing blunt­ly present in the world. Com­mu­nism in such a film is an object among objects, some­thing imbued with cona­tus, strug­gling to remain in exis­tence but cer­tain­ly there, real, a fact among facts. In such films the East­ern Bloc is not demo­nized, but encoun­tered like nat­ur­al his­to­ry, “beyond good and evil.” This quality—that of bor­ing, amoral facticity—still comes through in the kind of pho­to­graph­ic trav­el­ogues of Moscow or Leningrad put out by Nation­al Geo­graph­ic in the decade. Com­mu­nism in fact gets direct­ly fold­ed into the magazine’s vision of the world as a sys­tem of cul­tur­al rather than polit­i­cal differences—communism itself becomes a kind of local colour, slight­ly exoti­cized, for sure, but nev­er­the­less includ­ed as such with­in the var­ie­gat­ed spec­ta­cle of the “human fam­i­ly.” Regard­less of one’s posi­tion on the rel­a­tive strengths and weak­ness­es of the Sovi­et sys­tem, the fact it hap­pened at all—and that for many decades fed, edu­cat­ed, and clothed its cit­i­zens and pro­duced cut­ting-edge sci­en­tif­ic research—remains a sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal fact. This is because even in the rot­ten­ness of the Sovi­et exper­i­ment there is the trace of a mir­a­cle, a break, an out­side for thought and prac­tice. Jean-Paul Sartre remains cor­rect that with­out this rot­ten, beau­ti­ful exper­i­ment, the world would have remained onto­log­i­cal­ly bour­geois. Along­side attempts to dis­cred­it Left imag­i­na­tion by ref­er­ence to its blight­ed history—in which its exis­tence was exhaust­ed by failure—there exists anoth­er ten­den­cy, one very much at the heart of neolib­er­al­ism: it is not only that com­mu­nism failed, that the facts of its exis­tence were eat­en up by fail­ure, it is that its fail­ure was so pro­found that it comes to be per­ceived as nev­er hav­ing exist­ed in the first place. In this con­text, the bare ges­ture of point­ing to com­mu­nism as hav­ing exist­ed at all (and in a form not sim­ply iso­mor­phic with fail­ure) becomes political.

Recent­ly, we have begun to hear a lot about the sup­posed end of post­mod­ernism, the turn, after Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Quentin Meil­las­soux, Jodi Dean, and oth­ers, towards a post-post­moder­ni­ty. Whether it be in the form of a return to the rad­i­cal inten­si­ty of Truth, a dis­rup­tive mate­ri­al­ist psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Real, a cer­tain kind of Marx­ist soci­o­log­i­cal deter­mi­na­cy, or even, as in Object Ori­ent­ed Phi­los­o­phy, a thought capa­ble of grasp­ing things them­selves (rather than sim­ply their appear­ances), our moment can be said to be char­ac­ter­ized by a desire to exit the era in which phi­los­o­phy came to see itself as a sto­ry­teller rather than as a prac­ti­tion­er of strict Ger­man Wis­senschaft. What then, of the claim, that post­mod­ernism is over? In so far as these are claims for a turn with­in the restrict­ed cul­tur­al sphere of phi­los­o­phy they are cer­tain­ly cor­rect; posi­tions that cel­e­brate the irrec­on­cil­able mul­ti­plic­i­ty of per­spec­tives, the sov­er­eign­ty of plea­sure, or the ecsta­sy of an iden­ti­ty in con­stant flux have nev­er looked less inter­est­ing nor as philo­soph­i­cal­ly weak as they do today. Yet as the name for an actu­al his­tor­i­cal era it is arguable—despite all the talk of a return of the repressed of his­to­ry, a new cycle of the Real, a return to the divi­sive­ness and inten­si­ty of strug­gles, and so on—that post­moder­ni­ty as a politi­co-aes­thet­ic regime has nev­er been more secure­ly found­ed. Any­body who has spo­ken at length to a Trump sup­port­er, a fan of the Kar­dashi­ans, a lib­er­al banker, or an urban “cre­ative” knows all too well that the neg­a­tive remains as mori­bund as it felt to Her­bert Mar­cuse writ­ing at the end of the post-war boom: the only way to seri­ous­ly believe that we are liv­ing in an era of sharp­ened nega­tion is to con­fine one’s con­ver­sa­tion to a tiny coterie of like-mind­ed aca­d­e­mics. Badiou’s meta-phi­los­o­phy is not just true in the weak sense that it com­pelling­ly describes the struc­ture of human his­to­ry, it is true in the stronger sense of offer­ing to humans a pic­ture of them­selves as rad­i­cal­ly capa­ble of change. Yet noth­ing in the grandeur or even descrip­tive ade­qua­cy of Badiou’s posi­tion changes the fact that there was per­haps no time in his­to­ry in which it was more dif­fi­cult to actu­al­ly make (let alone sus­tain) a truth claim. In many ways, the core texts of Jean Bau­drillard on sim­u­la­tion or Debord on the spec­ta­cle or Fred­er­ic Jame­son on the flat­ten­ing of affect—all writ­ten before the advent of the inter­net, social media, and a 24/7 temporality—now look less like the slight­ly mad, “abstract” rant­i­ngs that seri­ous social sci­en­tists once denounced them as, and more like sober, empir­i­cal accounts of the world as it is. We live in a moment, we should recall, in which main­stream sci­en­tists and thinkers as well as some of the world’s most influ­en­tial “busi­ness lead­ers” (Elon Musk, for exam­ple) have sin­cere­ly come to believe that real­i­ty is a sophis­ti­cat­ed sim­u­la­tion. This sim­u­la­tion hypothesis—famously artic­u­lat­ed by Nick Bostrom in 2013—points to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a time in which we can plau­si­bly imag­ine a human being who, after spend­ing its day in var­i­ous sim­u­lat­ed real­i­ties (VR, tele­vi­sion, etc.) removes the gog­gles only to encounter a world it also open­ly believes to be false (or sec­ond-order). This is unpar­al­leled cul­tur­al ter­ri­to­ry, the strange revenge of Pla­ton­ism (though a Pla­ton­ism mis­er­ably emp­tied of truth and of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a world beyond the cave).

It may be that the expe­ri­ence we once called “Being”—that old lofty Hei­deg­ger­ian Dasein—itself died, along with the com­mu­nist out­side, on that obscure day lost some­where in the 1970s. That Jame­son was diag­nos­ing this sit­u­a­tion in the 1990s is remark­able giv­en how pre­lim­i­nary the symp­toms were at the time. Giv­en this con­text, there is a way in which 1970s visu­al cul­ture may end up car­ry­ing a heav­ier onto­log­i­cal sig­na­ture than much of the cin­e­ma which comes before or after it. Like a pho­to­graph tak­en by some­one at the instant before their death—the genre of the death self­ie is now com­mon­place among ste­gophiles, extreme tourists, etc. —1970s visu­al cul­ture reg­is­ters the traces of a Dasein inten­si­fied in the moment before its own era­sure. It should come as no sur­prise then that the sig­nals left by the col­lapse of a the­mat­ics of Being (and even of an end to the motif of col­lapse itself) ping loud­er the clos­er we get to those visu­al arti­facts that com­mem­o­rate or reg­is­ter the tech­nolo­gies most impli­cat­ed in this process. There is some­thing impos­si­bly odd about the sight on film of a 1970s tele­phone booth, an uncan­ni­ness that can’t be under­stood apart from the oper­a­tions of a cer­tain dif­fuse his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist meta­physics. An image of a con­tem­po­rary cell-phone or lap­top has no capac­i­ty to reg­is­ter the dif­fer­ence between the post­mod­ern and what came before it—they are blunt­ly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with them­selves. How­ev­er, this imme­di­ate­ly changes when we are pre­sent­ed with prim­i­tive pro­to­types of these objects or even with whol­ly oth­er objects on alter­na­tive devel­op­men­tal arcs with rough­ly the same func­tions or oper­a­tions (the tape-recorder, type-writ­ers, etc.). It also comes as no sur­prise that details about this onto­log­i­cal shift are refract­ed through the visu­al his­to­ry (and after-effects) of the tech­nolo­gies impli­cat­ed in this era­sure and in the fun­da­men­tal redis­tri­b­u­tion of space-time it involves. 1970s films reveal to us a world that is at once uncan­ni­ly sim­i­lar and total­ly dif­fer­ent. It is the uncan­ny prox­im­i­ty to ourselves—offices that are rec­og­niz­able but com­put­er­less, ful­ly con­tem­po­rary auto­mo­biles out­fit­ted with ash trays and dial-switch radios—that allows us to wit­ness mate­ri­al­ly proof of the fact that there was life before the smart phone. Revealed here is the objec­tive super­flu­ous­ness of all of those modes and habits that make up the fab­ric of con­tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the pres­ence to desire of a world con­tent despite the absence of wifi. This his­tor­i­cal struc­ture of desire—the bliss of the past vis a vis all of the plea­sures or “neces­si­ties” held in store for it by the future—may be less uni­ver­sal than one might think, with the wash­ing machine, for exam­ple, “dreamed of” by the his­tor­i­cal suf­fer­ing of women’s bod­ies in a way that has no ana­logue in the cellphone.

The 1970s is a time that is close enough to resem­ble ours but at once sep­a­rat­ed from us by an unfath­omable dis­tance. Though one could point to the great ontol­o­gists of 1970s cinema—for exam­ple, Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, in whose films we are con­front­ed by a grit­ty being-there of His­to­ry we encounter almost nowhere today—even films in pop­u­lar, plot-dri­ven gen­res seem onto­log­i­cal­ly haunt­ed vis-à-vis their con­tem­po­rary ana­logues. This is evi­dent most­ly on the lev­el of pace, in a remark­able slow­ness that char­ac­ter­izes so much of the film pro­duc­tion of the peri­od and in which what is hap­pen­ing on the screen is nev­er quite absorbed into the imme­di­a­cy of its notion­al content.

There is no going “back to the 70s”. There are, how­ev­er, good rea­sons for think­ing that any pos­si­ble means out of the present—out of neolib­er­al­ism, out of postmodernism—will require a detour through the decade’s repressed polit­i­cal and onto­log­i­cal sig­na­tures. It is easy to roman­ti­cize the 70s, a time which, after all, pro­vid­ed us with some of the last great pho­tos of Revolt, of his­to­ry cap­tured col­lec­tive­ly by a gen­uine­ly oppo­si­tion­al Idea. It is not roman­ti­cism, though, that leads us back curi­ous­ly to flit through old shoe-box­es of Polaroids (shots of long-gone sub­ur­ban streets, of fad­ed birth­day par­ties, of now-rust­ed play­grounds, of loved ones dead for decades, etc.). Held up against the imma­te­ri­al­i­ty of the dig­i­tal image, the Polaroid today has about it the aura of a ceme­tery or bur­ial ground. Why is this the case? Though the Polaroid extracts a moment from the flux in which it takes place in a way that is sim­i­lar to the dig­i­tal image, it sud­den­ly trans­forms that moment into an object that is itself instant­ly claimed by sin­gu­lar­i­ty and time, itself imme­di­ate­ly unre­peat­able and sub­ject to dete­ri­o­ra­tion. Rather than dis­ap­pear­ing into the per­ma­nence of an orbit­ing Cloud, the Polaroid object can now be lost, shred­ded, fade, burn, etc. Unlike the tra­di­tion­al pho­to­graph, how­ev­er, the moment extract­ed from the flux is not sep­a­rat­ed from its trans­for­ma­tion into an object by the inter­val of devel­op­ment: instead, slight­ly dis­placed, it appears with­in that very same here-and-now. We are haunt­ed by the Polaroid–an aes­thet­ic now wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed on Insta­gram fil­ters, for example—not just because it was super­seded as a medi­um by the arc of tech­no­log­i­cal change (that is, not just because its dead). Rather, the desire of the Insta­gram fil­ter is the fade of the Polaroid: what it craves, on the bor­der of every­thing it finds intol­er­a­ble about the present, is ontol­ogy. It isn’t nos­tal­gia then that leads us back to the Polaroid, nor a belief in some kind of unmedi­at­ed Being or Erfahrung, but a tinkerer’s inter­est in the pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in every­thing still capa­ble of fading.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodore. Min­i­ma Moralia: Reflec­tions from Dam­aged Life. Ver­so, 2005.

Barthes, Roland. Trav­els in Chi­na. Poli­ty Press, 2012.

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